Aided by a grant from Qatar Foundation, a prominent American publication has begun working on a ranking system to assess some 800 higher education institutes across the MENA region.
But researchers concede that the pursuit, which was first suggested by QF Chairperson Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, is sure to be rife with challenges – not the least of which will be getting Arab universities to share key data points like admissions statistics and student retention rates.
For US News & World Report, which is perhaps best known for its annual (and controversial) reports assessing US-based colleges, the new rankings would be a chance to expand its global profile.
Brian Kelly, the publication’s editor and chief content officer, announced the project last month while in town for the WISE education conference. In a statement, he said:
“Qatar Foundation is a leading source of global education innovation. Sheikha Moza asked me whether we could bring the work we do in the U.S. to the region as a way of creating global consistency and adding substantial value to higher education in the MENA region.”
Speaking to Doha News, project leader Robert Morse said the magazine is pursuing the project for many reasons:
“There is definitely demand for comparative information and rankings by students and parents in the Middle East (who want to) find out about the schools in their own country.” he said. “We believe there’s also demand from policymakers in higher education and government officials who are trying to make an effort to raise the standards of the schools or be able to understand their needs.”
Employers would also find the rankings helpful because it would help them understand the quality of education that applicants have gotten, he added.
But to rank schools, the magazine must first collect data – and persuading colleges to share that information could be tricky, Morse said.
“A small proportion of the schools report data externally and make them public. We’re going to have to work with a smaller number of schools, and get buy-in from some of the leading schools in each country. Hopefully, when we get buy-in from some of the top schools, that’ll make (other) schools view it as a worthwhile effort, and they’ll get on the bandwagon.”
US News will also have to work with different countries’ ministries of education and other organizations that are collecting data in efforts to maintain quality assurance, he added.
QF has affirmed to US News that it would be among the first to offer up data. But its financial support for the project – the extent of which has not been disclosed – won’t affect the scores, Morse said.
“We do have 100 percent independence and it’s going to be our data, our ranking, our methodology, our execution – and they’re not going to be having a role in developing the rankings,” he said.
Once researchers collect data, they must then figure out how to compare schools that vary in size, teach in different languages and vary in other ways.
“How to compare branch campuses like Texas A&M Qatar to American University of Beirut? It’s going to be a very interesting and challenging project,” Morse said.
The timeline for the project remains unclear. Morse said it would take more than a year to develop the rankings, but declined to go into specifics. However, according to Fanar Media, US News aims to develop the guide within three years:
“The MENA rankings guide will be rolled out in phases. This year, U.S. News will publish a directory of more than 800 universities from 19 countries on its website. In the beginning of 2014, it hopes to add search functions to the online listing. By the middle of next year, Kelly said they plan to start some data collection and full reports and products should be available by year three.”